Sam Miller talks about his dynamic (and completely free) River to River Festival

Sam Miller talks about his exciting River to River Festival, which takes place this summer in lower Manhattan

Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey perform at River to River. Here, Cardona and Proeung Chhieng perform an incarnation of The Set Up at the Movement Research Festival

Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey perform at River to River. Here, Cardona and Proeung Chhieng perform an incarnation of The Set Up at the Movement Research Festival Photograph: Ian Douglas

Sam Miller talks about his dynamic River to River Festival, which takes place in outdoor spots in lower Manhattan and—better yet—is utterly free. Artists include Luciana Achugar, Vanessa Anspaugh, Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, and Reggie Wilson. It's looking up to be a hot summer for dance.

Sam Miller, the president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, is stirring up downtown dance with a fresh take on presenting site-specific work. This season’s River to River Festival marks the beginning of a two-year program, featuring 12 projects in which choreographers will develop work for both theaters and unconventional sites. It’s a structured relationship: Multigenerational artists receive studio time, the opportunity to present work, money—$21,000—and a dramaturgical environment in which they can discuss dances and issues in the field. The choreographers deserve to be named: Luciana Achugar, Vanessa Anspaugh, Souleymane Badolo, Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, DD Dorvillier, Faye Driscoll, Maria Hassabi, Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, Okwui Okpokwasili, Tere O’Connor, Enrico D. Wey and Reggie Wilson. Miller, who previously ran the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the National Dance Project, spoke about the festival’s new focus. 

Time Out New York: How is this a reaction to last year’s festival?
Sam Miller:
Last year, we focused on the notion of extended life. We would see pieces in the theater and talk to the artists about translating them to a site-based performance. I was really happy with the results, but this year I was able to raise more money to invite a group of 12 choreographers to work over two years. It means that as they start working—although they’re all at different stages of development—they can think about both venue and site. In thinking about what we learned, I guess it was just to work a little more deeply and over a longer period of time and to be supportive. Extended life is not just a way for us to get site-based work. It’s to allow the artists, if they are interested, to continue to work on ideas. 

Time Out New York: Because one problem in the dance world is that a season is three nights and then it’s over.
Sam Miller:
That’s right. And, you know, I’ve been doing this for a while. It used to be that when I was at Jacob’s Pillow, I was giving artists the opportunity to develop work over a number of years, but there was a fairly robust touring situation 20 years ago. I would have an artist at the Pillow and invite presenters and then that work would have a life afterward. When I left the Pillow and started the National Dance Project, it was, again, to acknowledge and support that kind of economy. Artists—particularly the artists I was attracted to—depended on institutional relationships, not just to show the work, but also to make the work. Over time, particularly for New York artists, there have been fewer opportunities to tour. Extending the life, allowing an artist to keep working on really good material, needs to take different forms. LMCC can give them work space, but we can also give them a second opportunity to show the work. I feel like we’re going to begin quietly this year and more aggressively next year to invite curators, festival directors and presenters to come to the festival to see this dance work. For an artist to have both a venue-based and a site-based version of the show is not a bad thing.

Time Out New York: Why is touring so difficult for this generation of New York artists?
Sam Miller:
When New York was so clearly the center of dance making, both in the United States and in the world, Europe was a legitimate opportunity for American artists. So things changed. There’s modern dance happening across the country and across the world. You have a lot more competition now than you had 20 years ago; the French will subsidize their companies or the Dutch or the Japanese. And in cities outside of New York like Seattle and Minneapolis and Chicago, you have active dance communities.

Time Out New York: And those places have money.
Sam Miller:
Yeah. And the other thing is that the whole infrastructure has changed. Twenty, 25 years ago, a choreographer aspired to have a company and a manager and an agent and then tour, and those tours were supported. For me, one of the big breaks coming out of the Pillow was working with Ralph Lemon. When we originally started working together, he had a dance company, and it toured, but when I left the Pillow it coincided with Geography [Trilogy] and that required a different strategy. The National Dance Project reflected that: Ralph’s not going to have his own studio. He’s going to need Yale and Bates and the Walker and places like that. That’s how it was designed, and that’s the world we live in. These artists that I work with need help in different kinds of ways—they need space to make the work, they need financial support. You have to put together what you need on an almost project-by-project basis.

Time Out New York: How did you come up with this list of artists?
Sam Miller:
One of the great things about taking this job was that I could focus on New York. When I had the other jobs, I was thinking about the United States of America and the Kingdom of Cambodia, you know? [Laughs] These are such strong artists, and they are so deserving of support. But which ones? I was looking for artists who would be interested in the idea of site. One of the great privileges of my work is that I invite choreographers to sit down and have lunch and talk, and I do it in groups. A lot of them do work in isolation, and bringing them together is a pleasure too. But when you bring them together, what you’re doing is posing a philosophical problem. It’s not a bad thing. What opportunities does translating or developing work for site present? How do we approach that opportunity or that problem?

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